So JoePa’s out, along with Penn State’s president, and assorted others. They should have known better. I don’t watch pro football. I don’t even care about college football yet, though I’m sure that will change if The Boy goes on as he has begun. But I saw this in the news and it hit home for me–oddly enough, I found myself reacting most strongly to this image. There’s something about those football players emerging from the wall, following what could well be their coach, heading onto the field. I have seen my son like that, running onto the field with his teammates, following their coach, all of us in the stands roaring and screaming not because we’re winning (often we aren’t) but because these are our children, our flesh and blood, and it is not just them on the field, it is us, too. And afterward, when the teams have met and slapped hands in the middle of the field and our boys turn back toward us in the stands and pull off their helmets, and the floodlights paint the field and our town’s sons in vivid colors–there’s something about that. I look at The Boy’s sweaty, curly hair rising above his enormous shoulder pads, I see not the child he was, but the man he is becoming.
And his coaches have been a huge part of that. They’re not perfect. Sometimes we hit ugly patches. But these are men who we trust enough to spend a heck of a lot of time with our sons, men we trust to see them safely to games far away, and safely home again, most of all men we trust to teach them not just about football, but about life–about pushing yourself harder than you think you can, about maintaining personal honor even when no one is watching, about playing fair, about taking a knee and showing respect when a player gets hurt. We trust our coaches to keep our sons safe–and to help them grow into men who will do the same for our grandchildren.
Before The Boy went out for football that was something I didn’t understand. I saw the massive pads. I saw the helmets. I saw bodies crashing into each other, pulling each other down, all in an often-fruitless attempt to move a small pointed ball ten yards. When I went to practices and heard the loud crack of pads colliding I winced. But I watched my son practice after school every day, struggling to learn the game, overcoming his natural inclination to avoid collision. I watched his teammates high-five him when it became clear that he was nearly impossible to knock down. I watched him standing in a circle of smaller players, smiling. I heard him talking about sportsmanship, about clean play. It occurred to me that I was raising a good person. Football was teaching him how to be a good man. It was teaching him to be strong without being a bully, to compete without sacrificing his conscience, to take pride in pushing back his personal boundaries.
If the allegations are true, the very soul of football has been violated. It is hard to imagine a greater betrayal of trust. Men who had been trusted with the bodies and minds of generations of PennState football players knew that one of their number had broken that trust in a profound way. To say they did nothing isn’t quite accurate, but they didn’t do enough. They didn’t act to protect the boys being molested, and they didn’t protect the football players who, if they weren’t physically at risk, were learning the unspoken lesson that if you’re skillful enough and talented enough your character really doesn’t matter, that personal integrity has no value, that you can do just about anything as long as you’ve got people willing to conceal your guilt.
It’s not like they’re the first to learn this. Over the last few decades we have seen that predators all too often cloak themselves in the garments of the organizations and institutions we would like to believe are above reproach–our churches, our schools, our families, our sports teams.
Here is the thing that makes me saddest. Because the coaches and administration at Penn State knew about the danger one of their number posed and chose to conceal his guilt rather than turning him over to the property authorities parents everywhere will look at their sons’ and daughters’ coaches a little bit differently. And that’s a tragedy, because while parents who are not cautious these days really don’t deserve to have children, but because there are thousands of coaches across the nation, giving of their time to teach our children not just how to win games, but how to compete with integrity, honor, and passion.
The people at Penn State thought they had those coaches. They were wrong. And because they were wrong, all of us have lost a bit more of whatever innocence remains to us not only because of what a coach did in a locker room at Penn State, but because of what those who knew and should have stopped him did not do.
I once heard a family counselor describe child molestation as a crime that can only occur in an atmosphere of secrecy. In order to survive, a child molester need not be surrounded by other child molesters, he or she must only be surrounded by people who do nothing. By people who say, “I didn’t like it, but what could I do?” By people who say, “I’ll watch him (or her) when he (or she) is around.” By people who say, “I saw this,” but who stop saying it before they find someone who will act. By people who say, “Let’s deal with this quietly so we don’t give the family/church/school/sports program a black eye.” By people who say, “He said it was only the one time.” By people who say, “I told him it better never happen again.” In order to survive, a child molester need not be surrounded by people who actively approve his or her actions. He or she only needs to be surrounded by people who, for whatever reason, find it in their best interest to simply do nothing–and to salve their consciences by condemning the abuse to others who they can be sure will also do nothing.
And that, right there, is why what happened at Penn State is so dangerous. The temptation is to identify the coach who molested a child in the locker room as the problem. And he certainly was a problem. But the larger problem was the culture of secrecy that evolved to protect him. What we say matters less than what we do. I have little doubt the coaches talked to their players about integrity, about putting themselves on the line for the good of the team, about protecting each other, about acting with honor. But their words directly contradicted the far more prevalent, powerful unspoken message that the culture of secrecy that protected the predatory coach gave. Our children don’t always hear what we say. But they always, always, see what we do. By their silence, Penn State’s football staff and the relevant administration cut the very heart out of their football program.